“What do I do to make you want me?”
“What have I got to do to be heard?”
“What do I say when it’s all over?”
“It won’t be over until you apologise, and probably not even then. We don’t want you, you’re a disgrace, a traitor, a sexist/mysogynist, homo/trans/Islamophobe and there’s nothing you can do to be heard. You will not be heard. You will be silenced, fired from your job and erased (unpersoned, if you will) from public life.”
Not as catchy that one is it? It definitely doesn’t rhyme. Which is a shame, because it feels a lot more appropriate for our times that the original. Sorry seems to be the hardest word? Not in a world where that’s your only way out. When that’s what the mob demands. When those with the pitchforks and the torches are ready to take you out. “Sorry” is the hastily scrawled confession letter that you read out on camera in front of a balaclava-clad executioner as a last gasp plea for your life to be spared.
The crying, whimpering apology is all the rage. Indeed, it has been accepted among the rich and famous as the go-to get-out-of-Twitter-jail-free card. (This fantastic celebrity apology generator does sterling work in showing just how insincere and sickly these things can be.)
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The emperor will either give you the thumbs up, or he won’t. It depends very much on how he’s feeling at the time. Your life is no longer in your own hands.
I’ll make one thing clear before making my main point – a public apology can definitely be the right thing to do. If you’ve genuinely been an idiot or said something stupid that you regret, then saying sorry is the right thing to do.
The problem with most public apologies now is that I’m simply not buying it. I’m not buying that you regret your position when what I see all over your face is that you’re just scared of the reaction.
Twitter twitches with anticipation, ready to bring down the next young, naive weakling to stray away from the safety of the pack and be devoured.
Taking comedy as an example, there have been two high profile incidents that illustrate my point. Louis CK was accused of acting in a highly inappropriate manner towards fellow professionals over a period of many years, and he admitted it. He apologised and rightly so. You’re welcome to decide for yourself whether that apology was enough (or, indeed, whether it actually constituted an apology), at this point I don’t really care. My point is, he was wrong and as far as I can see, apologised. That doesn’t make everything right of course, but there’s no moving forward without it.
Kathy Griffin is the other end of the spectrum. She did a photoshoot (Warning – graphic) in which she held up what was supposed to resemble the severed head of the President, Mr Trump. Again, it’s up to you to decide whether this was in good taste, or funny, or not. I happen to think not, but who cares what I think. If I don’t like it I don’t have to see it. What really irritated me is that she succumbed to the pressure of the mob. She was hounded and blasted and she caved. “I beg for your forgiveness. I went too far”.
Oh for goodness’ sake. Get a grip. She made a joke that a lot of people didn’t like, she got a huge response, then apologised for the joke. A catastrophic precedent to set.
You may think “well if she’s sorry, who are you to say that she shouldn’t apologise?” Which would be a good point, except that she proved just how not sorry she was by recanting the apology, citing exactly the kind of media pressure that I’m talking about. I’m glad she did it, but worried that she bowed in the first place.
I’m not saying it’s easy, and God knows I’ve never had to face that kind of pressure. I don’t want to be too harsh on those who have apologised just to end it all, but I do want to highlight how dangerous it is.
In terms of comedy, there’s always the risk a joke goes too far. Limits are tested, boundaries are pushed. But Bill Burr puts it beautifully:
Steering away from the comedy world is where it becomes truly dangerous. Very few comedians will apologise for their jokes, and rightly so. But we have a much better line of defence than the average person. A joke is a joke, it isn’t meant to be taken seriously. The likes of Frankie Boyle, Jimmy Carr, Bill Burr – they say some awful things. But they’re jokes. If you don’t like them, don’t listen to them, and definitely don’t go to a comedy club. The thought of any of them apologising is grotesque, and would indeed be suicidal.
Others don’t have this line of defence. They’re out in the open, giving their opinions or saying something off the cuff and they’re on the hook for everything they say. Twitter twitches with anticipation, ready to bring down the next young, naive weakling to stray away from the safety of the pack and be devoured.
Take Shania Twain for example. Discussing the American President, the Canadian singer recently told a Guardian interviewer: “I would have voted for him because, even though he was offensive, he seemed honest. Do you want straight or polite? Not that you shouldn’t be able to have both. If I were voting, I just don’t want b******t. I would have voted for a feeling that it was transparent. And politics has a reputation of not being that, right?”
Perfectly reasonable. Not a position I’d take, but a considered one. She even leaves an open question at the end. But could she be left alone? You already know the answer to this one by now. Then came the grovelling apology.
“I would like to apologise to anybody I have offended,” she wrote. “The question caught me off guard. As a Canadian, I regret answering this unexpected question without giving my response more context.
“I was trying to explain, in a response to a question about the election, that my limited understanding was that the president talked to a portion of America like an accessible person they could relate to, as he was not a politician,” she continued.
“My answer was awkward, but certainly should not be taken as representative of my values nor does it mean I endorse him.”
Now, actually when you look at it, some of it is reasonable. If she’d just not started it with such a subservient submission, it might be more tolerable. For me, she could have kept it all, but just replaced the first sentence with something more sarcastic and caustic, like “I don’t need to explain myself to you, you massive bunch of perpetually outraged morons. But since you asked so nicely, here’s more clarity on what I actually think.”
My admiration for those who have the courage to stare down the ridiculous reactions to any little thing they say and steadfastly refuse to apologise for something they’re not sorry for, grows by the day. It’s getting harder, sure. But that makes it all the more impressive. Especially for liberals, who more and more have to face down their own side.
Bill Maher, in a monologue on his show ‘Real Time’ said this:
“In 2016, conservatives won the White House, both Houses of Congress and almost two thirds of Governorships and State Legislatures. Whereas liberals on the other hand caught Steve Martin calling Carrie Fisher ‘beautiful’ in a tweet and made him take it down”
And the rest of it just gets better.
Germaine Greer also absolutely gets it. She has fought her whole life for the feminist cause, something that will not have endeared her to a great many people. But that was the point – if you’ve got something to say, then you have to say it. Where would any cause be now if it apologised for hurting the feelings of someone else?
And boy will she not apologise. She gave an interview to BBC’s Newsnight in which she discussed trans people and feminism. She had just been ‘no-platformed’ by Cardiff University for her views and was absolutely not backing down.
People who for decades were thankful that someone so bold was on their side and fighting for their cause, suddenly can’t believe she won’t apologise to them now that they’ve taken a different route.
In the interview, she sums up her ‘controversial’ opinion thus: “I’m not saying that people should not be allowed to go through that procedure [transition surgery], what I’m saying is that it doesn’t make them a woman. It happens to be an opinion. It is not a prohibition.”
She is asked by Kirsty Wark, “Do you understand how they might feel like you’re being hurtful towards them?”, which seems to be standard questioning in interviews now, asking about people’s feelings rather than facts or legitimately held and defensible opinions (a bit like in the now infamous ‘so what you’re saying is…’ Cathy Newman interview with Jordan Peterson). Not “can you explain why you think that?”, not “what evidence do you have to support that position?”, just a slap down about hurting feelings and making people cry. Greer obviously bristles, replying, “People are hurtful to me all the time. Try being an old woman, I mean for goodness’ sake. People get hurt all the time, I’m not about to walk on eggshells.”
She goes on to explain the importance of tact, indicating for example that she would refer to someone with the pronoun of their choice if asked to do so, purely out of “courtesy”. I wholeheartedly agree here. I see no reason to be rude or disrespectful towards people, unless they deserve it.
But then comes the kicker. Wark asks, “Would you ever consider saying something more ameliorating…?”, which is exactly the point at which the usual response is to collapse, to cave in and just make it all go away. The point at which you have a decision to make. A decision that could have very real consequences to your life.
Greer replies, “No. I’m getting fed up with this. I’ve had things thrown at me, I’ve been accused of things I’ve never done or said, people seem to have no concern about evidence, or indeed, even about libel.”
Not things that usually matter to people engaging in such hostile behaviour, of course. But things that still make a lot of people back down. By calling it out, by not succumbing to the easy option, by fronting it out and stating outright and clearly her position, which is considered utterly blasphemous by the new religion of identity politics, Greer establishes herself as someone who will not be browbeaten into submission. This is a laudable stand and one that ought to beheld up as a shining example of how to deal with these situations. I make no comment on her opinions, such as they are. Merely on how she defends them. People who for decades were thankful that someone so bold was on their side and fighting for their cause, suddenly can’t believe she won’t apologise to them now that they’ve taken a different route.
“It’s sad, so sad
It’s a sad, sad situation
And it’s getting more and more absurd”
You’re telling me.
“It’s sad, so sad
Why can’t we talk it over?
Oh it seems to me
That sorry seems to be the easiest word”
To borrow a snide, sanctimonious trope from a typical Guardian BTL commenter – “There. Fixed that for you.”